• 9 Investigates: State's response to community's cancer fear

    By: Jim Bradley

    Updated:

    HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - After months of delays, North Carolina health officials said they'll soon begin questioning patients with a rare eye cancer who have links to the town of Huntersville.

    Since July, Eyewitness News has been reporting on concerns about a possible cancer cluster.

    Two young women died in 2014 and at least six others have come forward saying they've been diagnosed with ocular melanoma, an eye cancer that normally strikes five or six people out of 1 million.


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    Researchers in the North Carolina Epidemiology Department said they've been analyzing data on the cancers for months but local cancer patients say they're frustrated that no one has contacted them.

    “It's insulting,” said Summer Heath, a college student who was diagnosed in 2013. “How much more do we have to do?  How much more do we have to show that this is something to be scared of?”

    “I want to know specifics.  They say they're working on it.  I would say, show me specifics,” said Brandon Mallory, a middle-aged woman who lost her eye shortly after being diagnosed earlier this year.

    For months, officials with North Carolina's Public Health Department have been reluctant to discuss specifics of their investigation.  But now the department is talking, and apologizing for failing to keep Huntersville's eye cancer patients in the loop.

    Dr. Megan Davies, the state's top epidemiologist, said state researchers have been examining data about the Huntersville cases but says her staff should have done a better job sharing their process with cancer patients.

    “We just lost our focus on how the families and the patients are feeling,” Davies said.  “What I regret is that in going through our process we didn’t stop and reach out to the families to say ‘We're going to interview you.’”

    In addition to apologizing, Davies offered concrete examples of what her staff has done and what it plans to do in the coming weeks.

    Davies said after a statistical study of Mecklenburg County failed to show an unusual number of ocular melanoma cases she's asking for another study focusing on the much smaller area of Huntersville.  In addition her staff has compiled a multi-page questionnaire that will be given to the eye cancer patients who's been identified so far.

    “We're going to be trying to identify any specific exposures that could possibly give us any insight that we could use to prevent future cases,” Davies said.

    The survey is being handed over to Mecklenburg County's Health Department.

    Director Marcus Plescia said he'll send employees out soon to do  personal interviews with those impacted by the disease.


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    “This is concerning.  People think it's odd. I think it’s odd. A significant number of cases in a very confined area, yeah, you ought to have a look at it.  You ought to do everything you can to figure out ' is there something going on here,’” Plescia said.

    Kenny and Sue Colbert lost their daughter, Kenan, to ocular melanoma less than a year ago.

    For them and Huntersville's other eye cancer patients, a start is all they're asking for -- at least for now.

    “Just start somewhere,” Sue Colbert said. “Just take a look at something.”

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